tv Conversation With Historian Joseph Ellis CSPAN February 20, 2017 11:40pm-12:43am EST
he says it will never work in latin america because they're all catholics down there. so we can see in that dialogue a lot of the issues that continue to affect us and in the language that will challenge our categories and challenge the way we think about them in a fashion that's truly healthy. i probably had some truly eloquent conclusion and it's all written out. but as the psychiatrists i'm told say, our time is up. thank you very much. [ applause ] [ applause ] thank you. it took a village.
dr. watson has published more than 40 books, hundreds of scholarly articles, and encyclopedia reference essays. he has co-convened national conferences on the modern presidency, and moderated political debate and delivered more than 1,000 keynote addresses. he has founded three non-profit think takes dedicated to civic education, political reform. he is a frequent media commentator on cnn, fox's special report with britt hume, msnbc, "usa today," "the new york times," and the bbc. dr. watson has lectured at the four arts numerous time, and he will do so again in the future. we again welcome him as he works his magic with our formidable historians. >> there you go. [ applause ]
okay. >> everybody hear me all right? most importantly, i have a signed copy. well, thank you again, molly, dr. brennamen and the entire team at the society and congratulations on yet another important and successful and exciting program. i'd also like to thank c-span as was mentioned earlier for covering our program and acknowledge gay gaines for her support along with the others who underwrote this program. the opportunity to sit and talk history, if anybody knows me, i never miss the opportunity, and nothing but a nice history talk, but to sit and talk history with one of my heroes and arguably one of the pre-eminent historians of our time or any time, a man that has been called the -- capital "t" -- the
historian of the founders and that's from gordon wood, the dean of the war scholars, who'll be here in a week -- >> i paid him $100 to say that. >> and i would just like to thank again joe ellis for coming and for the remarks. [ applause ] well, we have about an hour. we may go over. we'll try to keep it tight to an hour. i thought we'd cover a few topics. one being professor ellis's books and his writing process. i want him to take us behind the scenes into his research and writing process. we want to get back on the founders and talk about their eternal and important legacy, contributions up to today and the meaning of them today, the relevance today. we want to touch on a few historical topics that he alluded to in his remarks and get back on that. but i would like to open up with getting to know joe ellis the person. on that note could you tell us what sparked your interest in history and at what age were you
when you first realized this was your calling? >> i don't have a canned answer to that. usually i've already heard the questions and so i'm scripted to do this. i went to college at the college of william and mary. before that i went to a school in d.c. that was a jesuit school called gonzaga. and so i was kind of classically trained in terms of latin, greek, and stuff. and i didn't really take much in the way of american history. but i majored in philosophy at william and mary. when it came time afterwards, i sort of -- people would come up to me in my junior year and say what are you going to do? you know, the horrible question. >> we all get it. >> and you had to have an answer so my answer was i'm going to law school. i hadn't thought about what i was going to do, but i knew that
was a good answer because everybody would accept that answer. and nen my senior year i realized i didn't have the money to go law school. i was on my own. and william and mary was cheap. i was working as a sort of super lifeguard in the d.c. area overseeing pools for kafitz corporation. anyway, i could not afford to go to law school. so i thought okay, i can get into graduate school. i really didn't want to go into philosophy because philosophy was heading off in this direction of semiotics and i was interested in ideas. so people at william and mary said you can go on and do history and so i applied -- and i got into yale, which noefr could understand how i ever got in. >> did you ever ask them how you got in? >> i didn't know who to ask.
i think i wrote an essay that somebody thought was good, but all the people at yale at the same time as me were much better read than i was. and at the end of a year -- i'll bring this to a conclusion here. at the end of a year i sort of thought i'm not cut out to do this. there's a -- i could feel i was supposed to write a certain way, and i didn't want to do that. and so i sort of started saying, i'm not coming back. what was i going to do? i was going to run swimming pools. okay? and the guy named sevian woodward, who was a prominent historian at yale, great man, called me into his office and made me promise that i would come back. and he said -- i said to him, mr. woodward, i don't really think i'm as good as all these other people, and he said, joe, you're right. they actually know more than you do from reading. but you can learn that.
you know something that they don't know and they could never learn. i've spent the last 40 years trying to figure out what that was. [ laughter ] i was leaning forward waiting for that moment -- >> i don't know. >> now i'm hanging off the edge of a cliff here. >> i think it has to do something with writing. >> if you weren't a writer and historian, would you be an attorney? what can you see yourself -- >> yeah, i'd abe lawyer. i think i'd be a lawyer. but not a corporate lawyer. i'd be -- you know, like -- but i wouldn't be happy -- i mean, i have lawyers making a lot of money write me and say i want to do what you're doing. and i say, give up. because it's not going to work for you that way. but i'm really -- in other words, like most of the things in life, most of the big
decisions that i've made in my life to include what i want to be when i grow up and who i want to marry and those kind of things, you make those decisions before you have enough information to really know whether they're good ideas. >> right decision or not. >> right? isn't that right? and so sometimes they work out. like in this case it worked out. i'm really happy. and like when i get up in the morning and i go down to my study and i drink my coffee and i try to scribble away and i write longhand, i'm not technologically committed to anything other than a rollerball black ink pen. and for me that's -- to say it's always fun isn't true but it's fulfilling for me in a way that's really wonderful. and teaching for me -- i've retired formally from teaching. i taught at williams last year
but most of the time at mount holyoke and the five college area, amherst and -- writing is a solitary activity. it's lonely. teaching is a social activity. i like the combination of those two things. >> right. >> i miss the teaching. i don't miss grading papers. and one of the things that's happening out there in the world of undergraduates. if you don't know this, you need to know this. in the last couple years students would give me their papers and i would make all kinds of comments on the margins at the end. labor-intensive process. you know what i'm talking about. >> it is. >> but that's really important. it's a central part of the education. you're playing with their minds, with the syntax of their sentences. you're talking about the way
they think. and i spent a lot of time doing that. and they come up after clasclass class, and they say i can't read cursive. >> cursive and roman numerals. >> i mean, it's like -- so you can't do that because it's interlinear on paper. and that's -- i'm anachronistic. >> a few years ago at our university we had smartboards installed in all the rooms. you've seen them on cnn. where you can open up the electoral college map or whatever. so i'm trying to think how can i use a smartboard to teach about the battle of gettysburg or something? so i thought, well, i would show the students original letters and take them back to these primary sources. so i pulled up, i don't remember if it was a washington or franklin or a lincoln or whatever the letter i pulled up. and this letter was written in cursi cursive. and i asked the first student, would you read it? and the first student looked at
me sheepishly and said i can't. so i thought maybe the student had a learning issue. so i diplomatically moved to the next student, who said i can't. and then it dawned on me that the students couldn't read cursive. and likewise, probably about a semester later in my course syllabus i had an outline for the historical periods we were going to cover and i had it in roman numerals. and one of the students said to me, dr. watson, why do you have a v in your syllabus? and then it dawned on me they didn't know that either. i want to get back on the writing and your approach to it in a moment. i think all of us have a favorite historical place or site we like to go to. i know during your research you devote a lot of time to poring through all these letters. do you have a favorite historic place or site, a place you go to to try to get into the brain of john adams? >> you mean a site -- they weren't -- >> a house, a battlefield. >> oh. not a place on the internet or -- >> no. a physical -- >> i'm not even plugged in in
that regard. first of all, i don't have research assistants. i do everything myself. >> which is rare today. >> not -- i mean, it's rare for people -- >> for people of your caliber. >> who are trying to produce works at -- >> i don't have research assistants either, but it's different. >> it's because i -- in doing research and reading, i discover things that i would not be able to tell a research assistant to look for. so like general howe in the battle of germantown returned washington's dog, who he found on the battlefield and had it personally returned. that's not going to change the direction of the american revolution. >> but they were both -- >> i would have never found that. but the -- i think it's letters.
i mean, it's a real interesting fact, what's going to happen with the history of the 21st century major political figures. >> because no one writes anymore. >> because there are no letters. and how much of the -- and in some ways you've got too much information because e-mails proliferate in ways that are infinite. but reading letters, the adams family correspondence is to me one of the most -- perhaps the richest source. also the -- what i said at the end of my talk, the adams-jefferson correspondence. it's just -- and you assign that to students. i've assigned the whole thing to students at mount holyoke and aristan. they almost always begin with the assumption that they're going to like jefferson and he's going to be the big -- he's going to write much more elegantly. and then they realize, they don't like him as much as they like adams.
and that jefferson has a style that floats. his style is like his mind. it's rhapsodic. it's romantic. it floats above the details of ordinary life. and it's attractive in that regard. it's beguiling. but i had this one student who said, this is jefferson. [ changing voice ] this is adams. and it's aggressive. it's pugilistic. and watching that, for me that's a source, that's a place. i love to go back to mount vernon. i love to go back to monticello. those are the two places i most go back to. montpelier's being recreated in a big way at this moment. that's madison's home. and i respect the work that they do. the adams -- i like the adams homestead in quincy, which is
run by the national parks service. it's not run by a private thing. and it's a real home. the other places have become museums in some sense. people actually lived for the next three to four generations in the adams home, and i like that. i like that thing, that kind of -- but if there's anything creative that i do it happens when i'm reading a letter and i see things in it that make me think about an issue in a way that i before had not been able to think about. >> i think it's fantastic you that do all your own research. and i would agree that the story about the dog at germantown in pennsylvania, october of 77, a research assistant would have said i'm not going to pass this along to professor watson or professor ellis. but if you read it yourself, both howe and washington were dog lovers. it's almost an endearing moment. imagine two leaders in a battle, after exchanging a dog that was running around lost on the battlefield -- >> it makes -- if you wanted to
probe 2that, you could go like this. >> sure. >> you could say look, howe didn't believe in this war. >> right. >> howe didn't want to be fighting washington. howe had hoped that they would be able to defeat the continental army at long island and then end it -- >> that was it. >> and he really, really didn't want to be there. >> right. >> and he had a relationship with washington in which he saw him as an honorable c ablable c. and honor exists in a way that we have a difficult time understanding now. i mean, think about this. why is it on the revolutionary war battlefield when the two sides approach each other they don't lie down? i mean, why would you stand there when somebody is about ready to shoot you? right? because that's dishonorable.
and like generals in battles in the revolutionary war, even though they're being annihilated, will not retreat. >> right. >> why? retreat is dishonorable. stupido. okay? just get behind a rock. you know? but it's -- so that one little incident can be a device that gets you into a whole mentality. and one of the things i wanted to say because i was going on too long in the talk, we're talking about a world in the late 18th century that is predemocratic. when gordon comes next, gordon wood, you tell him it's predemocratic. and he's going to go nuts. >> they get along but they have their disagreements. >> it's pre-darwin. it's pre-freud. it's pre-picasso. it's pre-keynes. it's pre-internet.
it's even pre-donald trump. so that's a really different world back there. now, does that mean it's lost forever? i wouldn't go there. if it was lost forever, what in heaven's name are we bothering ourselves to go back there? there are things to learn from that world. >> right. >> but in the same way that let's say you're an anthropologist and you go to samoa. you shouldn't expect the samoan parents to raise their kids according to dr. spock. all right? and we all know that that would be wrong to do that. it's similar to go back and -- and you get into the fights with undergraduates about this. there was a young woman at williams last year. we were talking about slavery and the constitution and the constitutional convention. look, they made the wrong choice, they made the morally reprehensible choice, and that's
the end of the story. we can't talk about it anymore. i said, well, what do you mean we can't talk about it? this is this trigger thing, you know, this notion -- you've got to recognize that this is a different world and come to terms with that world and understand in fact if they had actually tried to insert an article ending slavery or saying that slavery should be on the road to extinction, the constitution would have never passed. >> right. >> so what happens then? so you get your way. you know, what happens then? the south ends up being separate. they probably make an alliance with england because of the cotton trade. slavery probably lasts longer. though it's hard to know. you can't go back and play the tape. but i feel strongly that you can't impose a politically correct identity politics
agenda. >> a 2017 perspective on something -- >> right. >> yeah. and there were founders who were opposed to slavery, alexander hamilton, ben franklin and others, but it was politically not going to happen. you had mentioned -- john adams is one of these founders that is hard to like according to a lot of historians and probably not that popular. yet you've always been enamored with him. with him. >> yeah. captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2008 captioning performed by vitac